The importance of a clear plan and conditions dialogue
– Larry Goldie, IFMGA Mountain Guide, North Cascades Mountain Guides
When asked why they are taking an avalanche safety class, the number one response I hear from students is, “to be safer in the backcountry.” While you can argue that this is a difficult task in a three-day course, avalanche instructors work hard to send folks away with many of the tools they need to be safer skiers. Some of these safety tools are adopted from the guiding industry and modified for practical recreational use. One of the most effective such tools is the simple pre-trip or morning meeting ritual used by ski guides.
Every morning, before a guiding day, a guide or group of guides sits down to discuss and evaluate the upcoming ski day; the discussion is aptly called the morning meeting. As you might expect, the topics include weather conditions, the weather forecast, the avalanche conditions, a group’s skills, etc. With all of these details in mind, we arrive at the heart of the meeting – the run list or tour plan. At this point, we go through all of the possible runs and routes that we could ski for the day and decide, based on everything discussed up to this point, if we are comfortable skiing them or not. Red or green, open or closed, we make the critical terrain choices inside, coffee in hand, in a much less emotionally-charged environment than standing on a ridge looking at the terrain or even at the trailhead. Establishing a consensus regarding what terrain is safe in this less emotion-filled environment is a critical risk management tool. Once in the field, skiing deep, light, fluffy powder, it is all too easy to talk ourselves into heading over to a bigger, steeper or more committing slope. Making critical terrain choices in advance removes one of the largest human factors that we are all susceptible to – powder fever.
Now, for the run list to really work, everyone has to buy into the rules of engagement. First and foremost, if anyone in the group is not comfortable skiing a run, it is closed, period. Next, if new information comes to light in the field, a run that was open can be closed, but a closed run cannot be opened that day. For example, if you find that there is significantly less wind effect than expected, you cannot change your plan and decide to ski a previously closed run. If conditions turn out to be much more stable than you expected, no problem, simply head back to the same zone, and ski it tomorrow! Finally, runs can be rated “yellow,” but only if there is a clearly definable parameter that can be observed. This parameter needs to be black and white, such as, if a cornice hanging over the slope has fallen, or if the slope has slid since the last storm. On the whole, the yellow rating should be avoided as it invites justifying desires with findings from the field. This runs contrary to the whole point of decision making in the morning, in that non-emotionally charged environment.
The morning meeting and run list are tools that can easily be adopted by you and your posse of ski touring partners. It’s a foundation to good group communication. For the best success, meet a little earlier than normal and keep it somewhere indoors, as opposed to the trailhead. A coffee shop or bakery works well. And when on a hut trip, the breakfast table is great.
If you’re the organized type, pre-assign tasks to members of your group such as avalanche forecast, weather forecast, and relevant telemetry report for the area of concern (current weather), etc. It’s important to get everyone involved as opposed to one person doing all of the talking and decision making. This also divides the tasks, so each person can get out the door more quickly in the morning. Finally, after discussing these factors, discuss as a group which area makes the most sense for your tour. Once you have a target location, take a look at terrain photos. It’s really helpful to have terrain and run photos (printed or digi) to look at as a group. Don’t have photos of the areas where you like to ski? Make it a habit while touring to shoot photos of terrain you ski and build your own terrain atlas. You can also use a Google image search of an area (you’ll be amazed what comes up for your secret stash!), or use Google Earth. Then, with your group, decide on which runs are open or closed for the day and agree to stick to your decisions once in the field. Don’t let other skiers in a closed area change your mind – that is the exact purpose of going through this process before you get out there. Make sure someone writes down which runs are open and which ones are closed to minimize conflict in the field.
Finally, just because a run is open doesn’t mean that every wind-loaded, convex roll on that particular slope is fair game! Use common sense and continue to pay attention to micro-terrain features.
So, in an effort to be safer in the backcountry this season, add the morning meeting ritual, complete with a run list, to your routine. It’s one of the best tools available to help stack the odds in your favor. If you’re comfortable just winging it and hoping for the best out there, or just waiting to see what things are like when you get there, best of luck to you. Keep in mind though; luck tends to favor the prepared.
– Larry Goldie. IFMGA Mountain Guide, is co-owner and lead guide at North Cascades Mountain Guides
this article first appeared in Off-Piste Mag issue 63